Saturday, August 17, 2013

How important is a character's appearance? Guest Post by Kat Ellis

Today's guest post is from Kat Ellis

What does your main character look like? Or if you’re a reader but not a writer, what does your favourite main character look like?

I bet you can describe them in some detail: eye colour, the kind of hair they have, what clothes they wear, their body type.  And maybe the way you picture them and the way someone else pictures them will be exactly the same, if they’ve been described in that kind of detail. But even if their appearance has been left for a reader to imagine, I’m betting you have a clear idea of what they look like.   

When book-to-film cast lists are announced, there are always some who say, “But that’s not what he/she looks like!” Think Rue in THE HUNGER GAMES movie. Edward and Bella in TWILIGHT. The movie actors may look different to how we imagined them–either from their description in the novels, or just our own imaginings—and maybe that leads to a moment of doubt about a character we loved. If I got that wrong, did I misunderstand the character?  

Without the movie, your image of a character may never be called into question, so you may never know if your picture of them matches someone else’s. So, does it matter what characters in novels look like?

Sometimes it’s important to the story. WONDER by R. J. Palacio is about Auggie – an ordinary 10-year-old boy who likes to do very ordinary 10-year-old boy things, except he’s terrified to start going to mainstream school because of a facial abnormality he was born with. Eleanor in ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell is picked on because of the way she looks. (Rainbow Rowell wrote a wonderful post about whether or not Eleanor is really fat – you can read that here.

So, arguably, you could say that their stories would not have been interesting—or at least not in the same way—if their appearance hadn’t made them stand out. And certain aspects of appearance—like ethnicity, gender, height, weight, beauty (however this is defined)—will affect how a character interacts with others, and their experience of the world. But describing a character’s appearance because it impacts on the story is different from describing them simply to create a shared image.

It sometimes takes me by surprise when I read a description of a character who I’ve already formulated a picture of in my head. If the description differs from the mental image I have of them, that tells me I’m filling in blanks the author didn’t expect me to fill in. I then start to wonder: if I describe my own characters’ appearance in detail, am I setting up the reader to feel disconnected? Because in that jarring moment when I read the description that doesn’t gel with my own, I start to re-evaluate my opinion of the character, and that takes me out of the story.

And another part of me quite enjoys being free to imagine characters –my own and other people’s—the way I want to see them. It gives me a role in the story and a creative freedom that I wouldn’t otherwise have with someone else’s book.

So maybe what you leave out is just as important—maybe more important—than the description you put in.

What do you think: is a character’s appearance important? Do you prefer to have a detailed description, or to fill in the blanks yourself?

Kat Ellis is a young adult writer from North Wales. Her debut novel, BLACKFIN SKY, is forthcoming from Firefly Press (May 2014, UK), and Running Press Kids (Fall 2014, USA). You'll usually find Kat up to no good on Twitter, playing badminton like a ninja, or watching scary films with her husband and feral cat. She speaks Welsh fluently and French badly. 

Want to know more about Kat? She lurks around on her blogwebsite and Twitter

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  1. Fun topic, Kat. :)

    I remember during a certain phase when I was younger I hated it when a male character I liked was described as having a beard because I hated beards hahaha.

    Mostly it doesn't bother me too much, I'm pretty good at ignoring any physical description I don't like and supplanting it with my own.

    Sometimes I make random associations like Edward from Twilight is Paul Wesley (Stephen Salvatore) in my head hahaha

    1. I like the interchangeable hot vampire thing, lol! I suppose I find it harder to roll past descriptions that don't mesh with my own image of a character - wish I didn't!


  2. I think a few details are helpful, because there are a few folks who really do want to know how characters "should" look. Like you, Kat, I tend to imagine characters however I feel like, sometimes in stark contrast to the stated description. On the other hand, many readers do want at least some description.

    1. I think for me it's only jarring when they're described late in the game - if they're described right away, my image of them forms around that description. Tricky to balance it, though ;)

  3. I tend to just describe the main character's hair colour, eye colour and height relative to the other important characters. But I don't go in for the shape of the jaw and the height of the cheeks, etc. *shrug*

  4. Ooh, I love this post!! I remember years ago one my school teachers telling us that she was so disappointed when she first saw a James Bond movie because she always imagined him with a beard!!

    1. LOL! Hard to imagine Bond with a beard (although I'm giving it a good try). Thanks, Yangsze!